In the last week, the U.S. fencing community faced an unprecedented occurrence: the dissemination via social media of a video clearly intended to harm one of its most recognizable referees. The accompanying introduction claimed the video maker sought to open up a dialog about what he perceived to be inadequacies in the U.S. referee cadre. And while the video, its dissemination and the accompanying online posts may also have consequences for which its creator did not intend, it certainly has people talking.
The target of the video has asked the Fencing Officials Commission Ombudsman (FOCO) group for guidance on the matter. Because it was a personal attack on the referee’s integrity, and ultimately his livelihood, he really needs to follow his own conscience and weigh his own options in terms of how he will respond personally, legally and professionally.
Having said that, FOCO views this incredibly unfortunate situation as a symptom to a much larger problem than two (perceived) questionable calls. What is at the root of the problem that causes one person to act in this away against another? What is the appropriate response to a situation like this? How can we prevent this from happening again? Some issues we need to explore include:
Issue: Code of Conduct
There is a lack of specific behavioral expectations for all publics at USA Fencing tournaments.
Possible Solution: USA Fencing needs a comprehensive code of conduct that covers all of its tournament publics. There is, at present, an athlete code of conduct, but nothing in place for coaches, officials, club administrators, parents or spectators. USA Hockey has an excellent, thorough code of conduct that could serve as a model. Various USA Fencing committees have discussed development of such a code, but to date, there is none. FOCO asks the USA Fencing Board of Directors to act on this suggestion immediately.
Issue: Grievance Policy and Procedure
There is no written/perceived grievance policy or process in place, beyond FOC ethics complaints, SafeSport or direct Board action. Many times athletes, their parents or coaches feel their verbal complaints about referees go unheard and unresolved. We need a policy and procedure in which to document simple job performance complaints (e.g. Referee X consistently misinterprets a specific action). This is completely different than a complaint against a referee for ethical issues (e.g. Referee Y made inappropriate comments about a fencer). And, as our last update stated, the FOC ethics complaint process is in serious need of repair in any case.
Possible Solution: USA Fencing constituents need a policy and process in place in which to file complaints without perceived moral implications, that is, to address simple job performance issues. This needs to happen immediately, with representatives from the FOC, Board of Directors and the USA Fencing national office participating in the planning and institution of the policy and procedure.
Issue: Referee Hiring Contracts
Does USA Fencing or the FOC bear any responsibility to help the referee in question in any pursuit of legal damages, based on the fact that the video’s creators used a USA Fencing tournament as the setting for their damaging video? Probably not, but at this time, no referee has any documentation stipulating what their rights and responsibilities are with regards to service at USA Fencing tournaments. There is the general knowledge that they agree to referee a tournament at a certain rate, plus per diem, travel and hotel; however, there is no contract between referees and USA Fencing stipulating terms. Where is it documented that USA Fencing would not bear the cost of legal representation for a referee? The simple answer is, there isn’t one.
Possible Solution: USA Fencing, referees or a combination of both parties need to agree to language and utilize a standard referee hiring contract that stipulates the terms and conditions of independent contractor referees at USA Fencing tournaments. The ad hoc group, Fencing Officials Roundtable, has been working on standard hiring contract language (this document does not stipulate wages, but provides a standard legal framework reflecting current practice) and would introduce it as a starting document to begin discussions.
Sadly, this video was a misguided attempt by a parent who believed that his child was the victim of one of the cadre’s most active referees, as well as unresponsive supervising referees and tournament organizers. Commentary suggests that the parents approached the FOC onsite with complaints, but were ignored. How could this situation have been resolved differently if the parent in question knew that he had a representative within the FOC or even in this group, FOCO, that would advocate for his son in a way that he believes is lacking now?
Possible Solution: FOCO recommends that the FOC should include specific coach and athlete representatives, just as the USA Fencing Board of Directors does. We further recommend that this ombudsman group should include those same representatives. If our publics feel disenfranchised by current referee governance, than they should definitely have a seat at the table.